I will admit, right away, that I didn’t much like this one when it first came out. I have since changed my tune.
This is a much more intelligent Bond, and one that does not pull any punches. Its intelligence and brutality is a complete 180 from the cartoonish silliness of Die Another Day, which is probably why my initial reaction was to recoil. It’s like going from a basement into sunlight and going “AAAAUGH, MY EYES!” Well, my eyes have adjusted, and it’s safe to say that this one is one of the better entries in the whole series, one that is bold enough to start the story over from a new beginning while still retaining a thematic continuity with the rest of the series.
In this, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is sent to investigate an expansive crime organization whose leaders MI6 have been unable to pin down. Following lead after lead, Bond eventually finds a tie to the shady Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) who manipulates stock prices with acts of terrorism to accumulate a tidy profit. After Bond foils Le Chiffre’s latest plot, the banker organizes a high stakes poker game in Montenegro, hoping to win back the money necessary to pay back his investors. Hoping to uncover clues as to the nature of the organization Le Chiffre is helping to finance, MI6 gets Bond a seat at the poker table and sends Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a British Treasury agent, to keep an eye on Bond in case he loses.
Interestingly, the plot is a lot of set up (punctuated by some pretty insane action sequences) followed by a twisty turny final act in which everything goes nuts. It’s much like From Russia with Love and The Living Daylights, in which a great deal of the tension lies in what everyone thinks is going on versus what is actually going on. It’s wildly complex, but not in the awkward way that The World is Not Enough is. It feels more intelligently planned out. It took me multiple viewings before I fully figured out what was going on, but that’s a good thing. Whereas World adds complexity just for the sake of it, Casino‘s plot complexity stems from narrative necessity, making multiple viewings worthwhile as you notice elements you didn’t before.
Now, this is the first outing for Daniel Craig as Bond, and I think he does a great job. Many like to draw connections between Daniel Craig and Sean Connery, and I can see that in their dark humor, blunt physicality, and effortless charm. Plus, Craig can be seen as a believable antecedent to Connery. He’s less refined, but can be when given the right dinner jacket, and his sense of humor, fledgling though it is, is just as biting and sarcastic when it needs to be. But it’s completely plausible to see one as a precursor to the other. And Craig will only get better as he goes.
Another thing that sets this one apart from previous entries is the action sequences. We’ve seen great action sequences before, like the tank chase in Goldeneye or the underwater battle in Thunderball, but this one really does a good job of making them genuinely tense as opposed to simply exciting. The parkour-esque chase in the beginning, the airport chase/fight, and the fight inside the collapsing Venetian building all move with such a brutal swiftness that they feel more real and less choreographed. Part of it is Craig’s juggernaut physicality (he literally just smashes through a wall at one point without the aid of any tools), and part of it is the fantastic direction. We’ve seen Martin Campbell before since he directed GoldenEye, and we’re SO glad he’s come back, because he’s only gotten better in the years since (I’ll even forgive him for directing Green Lantern (2011) because of this movie). Everything is crystal clear and razor sharp and he doesn’t rely on frantic editing to add an artificial sense of tension. It’s just beautiful work.
The music is back in top form here. David Arnold’s brilliant score feels like an integral and essential part of the story much in the same way that John Barry’s scores for Thunderball, From Russia with Love, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service did. It’s big and bold and more than makes up for the timid and un-memorable scores for The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day. And the opening credits are completely mind-blowing. I love Chris Cornell’s theme, especially the more orchestral-flavored version they use in the movie. It’s artfully crafted, sexy, and really catchy.
The title animation, which creates a surreal world based on the intricate designs of playing card art, is another winner for designer Daniel Kleinman (no longer “Danny Kleinman” as he was for Die Another Day). The focus is on Bond and his beating of overwhelming odds, so there aren’t any naked women in this one, but that’s okay. They would have seemed out of place in this particular sequence, since Bond isn’t really the Bond we know and love yet. I also adore how the sequence evolves out of the gunbarrel sequence, as if to suggest that this scene is what those other shots are stylized representations of. The complete gunbarrel sequence will show up in later entries, back the way it was, but the idea that this is the “first” gunbarrel is pretty cool.
I do also want to mention the actors, namely Le Chiffre and Vesper. Mads Mikkelsen is such an odd fellow that I’m not sure if they could have gotten anyone else to play this role. Might I remind you that the man is currently playing Hannibal Lecter on TV. Le Chiffre is such a wonderful character because you go from feeling bad for him to being terrified of him to loathing him. He plays the weak, frail, nervous card only to throw off Bond and those of his enemies he wants to underestimate him, but when he goes into full villain mode, he’s brutal. And so we as audience members can’t really decide if he’s a sympathetic villain or if it’s all an act.
When it comes to Eva Green, I think she really holds her own against Bond in conversation. I think, knowing the full story about her character really makes repeat viewings of the movie that much more interesting, especially when you see her veneer crack every now and then, revealing a terrified woman who doesn’t really have as much of a handle on things as she lets on. The character is fantastically put together. And, especially when placed alongside Tracy from OHMSS, you really see a pattern. Bond is attracted to any and all women, if it means he can get something from them, but when it comes to the women he’s fallen in love with, both were somewhat unstable, challenging, intelligent women who really mirrored all of Bond’s own insecurities about himself, especially his absent parents. I think Green does a bang-up job with the character, especially in their first meeting on the train where the verbal wit is flying at breakneck speed and neither party cracks so much as a grimace. She also seems to be a modernized version of Andrea Anders from The Man with the Golden Gun, composed and elegant, even if she has the potential to completely fall apart at any moment.
I also wanted to mention M. Having Judi Dench continue playing the same character even though the series was rebooted seemed like an odd choice (even though she does a brilliant job). But after watching it again, I can see that this character is very different from the M Pierce Brosnan dealt with. This M has much more of a sharp edge. She has much less patience for Bond and, even though she still has that almost maternal attitude toward Bond, it seems to come from a different place. In GoldenEye, Bond had to prove himself to M, who had formed an opinion of him based solely on the statistics of his record, and the two grew to respect one another greatly over the course of about half a film. In Casino Royale, it’s almost like she’s his case worker and he’s a rebellious foster child, chafing under her unfamiliar authority. She wants to keep him from getting himself killed, but she doesn’t understand him and he drives her crazy. She’s doing her best to teach him what she expects of him, but there’s an ocean of separation between the two. They’re not close, by any means, but she does feel responsible for keeping him in line. And so, though Judi Dench is still playing M, she’s playing a very different M, which is a nice way to start over while still fitting into the world of the previous films.
This is getting too long, so I’ll wrap this up. As this one draws to its cliffhanger ending, things are set up for Quantum of Solace to explain things.
-I love how things escalate in the Uganda scene. It seems like Carter is the untrained newb, and Bond is the hardened spy, but as the chase progresses, Bond gets more and more angry and more and more reckless, and pretty soon everyone in the audience is going, “Whoah, was that necessary!??!”
-I love how Craig can make a flowered Hawaiian shirt look like the manliest thing on the planet.
-M’s sassy entrance is the best. The line “Christ, I miss the Cold War.” is just the most perfect line, especially in a Bond film.
-It’s really difficult to watch this and not feel like I will never be as smooth and charming as Craig’s Bond. And then he steps out of the water onto that beach, and I start hating myself even more (and I’m totally cool with how I look, usually!) He’s just really good at making one feel completely inadequate. Such swagger should be illegal.
-“Why can’t nice guys be like you?”
“Because then they’d be bad?”
-The cell phones in this movie seem positively ancient, even though it came out less than a decade ago.
-I love the “fuuuuuuuu…!” look on Bond’s face after he stops the truck.
-“Stephanie Broadchest,” hehehehe. It’s totally juvenile, but I laughed…sue me.
-Bond is all grumpy about the dinner jacket and then he puts it on…and every guy in the theater hates himself more because they’d never be able to make a tux look THAT good.
-The dealer at the poker game looks like Ba’al from Stargate SG-1…but he’s not…
-How convenient that Bond’s car just happens to have a built-in defibrillator.
-I just realized that, for the last half of the movie, I was calling Vesper Vespa in my head.
“I am Princess Vespa! Daughter of Roland! KING OF THE DRUIDS!”
“Oh….that’s all we needed… A Druish princess…”
“Funny, she doesn’t look Druish!”
I need to stop now or I’m going to launch into an avalanche of Spaceballs quotes…
“It’s my industrial-strength hairdryer, AND I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT IT!”
Ok ok, I’m going. I’m going. Next week, we conclude this little reboot duology with the puzzling Quantum of Solace. See you then!!
*refrains from posting another Spaceballs quote*